Hanna Barbarians at the Gate
There’s rock ’n’ roll. And then there’s rawk ’n’ rolllll!, a peculiar species of music-centric living that fills parents’ rapidly graying heads with nightmares of drug-and-booze-fueled orgies presided over by the great Satan himself and lasting until well past first-period geometry class. Lots of bands practice rock ’n’ roll. Few bands, for obvious reasons, including health-related ones, live out the, um, less-reserved style.
But even fewer bands are capable of synthesizing the two, of going for the proverbial gusto but with feet planted firmly (or unsteadily) on terra firma.
Such epiphanies might pop into your head when you’re seated at a dining-room table at 1 p.m. on a balmy Sunday afternoon and the lead singer of some band that had played the night before –– and partied until the early morning hours –– is sitting across from you in a daze, munching on cold leftover fried chicken and creating Cuban Screws one mouthful at a time by taking a sip of rum from the bottle followed by a swig of orange juice. Also from the bottle. Only days earlier, this frontman, Blake Parish of the upstart Hanna Barbarians, was expounding intelligently and passionately on the music industry, politics, and artistic inspiration.
But Parish and the other Barbarians seem to easily navigate both worlds: the one of forethought and the one of oh, shit. Not only is the Fort Worth rawk ’n’ rolllll, mutha-fuckas! sextet supremely talented and at the vanguard of a nationwide return to ravenous, no-bullshit mega-guitar-based music, but they’re also idealistic and incredibly business savvy. You could say the Barbs, as they’re lovingly known, represent a new Fort Worth era, one in which partying and clear-eyed diligence coexist peacefully.
The Hanna Barbarians are in many ways your typical “local” rock ’n’ roll band: label-less, self-funded, and exceedingly confident. Except for occasional jaunts to Austin, most of the band’s shows go off –– and, yes, like a bomb, a Hanna Barbarians show indeed explodes –– in North Texas, at progressive venues such as Lola’s Saloon, The Moon, The Grotto, and The Where House. In April, the band released its debut album, Syzygy, a hearty, delicious, punch-you-in-the-face slab of fuzzy, gritty, impassioned boogie-woogie that recently cracked CMJ’s Radio 200 Chart, the reputable national trade magazine’s list of the most-played albums on U.S. college radio. One song, “All We Export,” is a bruising, venomous indictment of America’s tendencies toward toxicity of both the cultural and environmental varieties. Another song, the anecdotal “Heatstroke,” concerns dehydration at an outdoor festival. Schizophrenic? Perhaps, but the Barbs are steadfastly committed to the old rock ’n’ roll adage that prescribes playing whatever feels good. Sometimes political angst juices the ol’ loins. Other times, lightheartedness does the trick.
The Hanna Barbarians formed a couple of years ago in Fort Worth. Half of the guys in the band had never played professionally in a group setting before. Last month, the band headlined The Moon. There were two openers, Fort Worth’s Fate Lions and Dallas’ THe BAcksliders, who both performed valiantly despite a paltry crowd. Things picked up by the time the Barbarians took the stage, which was expected –– the band has quickly become one of the biggest draws in town.
Someone a long time ago said that rock ’n’ roll is as much about attitude and style as music, and the Barbarians have definitely got the look. The focal point is the fit, shaggy-haired Parish, who’s partial to pearl-snap button-ups or vintage t-shirts, faded blue jeans, and cowboy boots. Most of the other guys in the band also take their sartorial cues from ’70s-era Sears catalogs. The two guitarists –– Raef Payne and Alex Zobel –– and multi-instrumentalist Kris Luther usually have full beards and long hair. Bassist Chris Evans, a.k.a. Chevy (the “Ch” is like that in “Chuck”), has a dark beard and dreads. All of which makes short-haired drummer Tyler Fleming look like he’s in the wrong band.
Live, the Barbs mostly play Syzygy all the way through, first track to last, but with room for improvisation and new material. The first song, “Hair of the Dog,” features a funky, ping-ponging ostinato, and the dirty guitars’ angry timbre complements Parish’s loud, smoky voice in exploration of answers to the previous night’s shenanigans –– Chevy bangs his head throughout, ropes of dreads snapping around like the blades on a fan. The song bleeds into the next track, “Basement Shooter,” a bluesy explosion (replete with harmonica) that skillfully alternates between quiet and bombastic. Though the song’s content is plain –– basically, it’s about the depths to which people will sink to “get high, get high, get high, get high!” –– the music is creamy and effective and requires perfect timing and more than a little control. Onstage, the players exude a seemingly utter lack of self-consciousness, an intense level of focus that’s endearing and also intoxicating. Like the best rock ’n’ roll bands, The Hanna Barbarians create a vibe that’s dazzling and macho but also friendly and welcoming. No easy task.
“I don’t think they sound like anyone else,” said Cody Admire, a Fort Worth musician for decades and owner of The Grotto. “These guys, they’ve got the potential to go all the way. We have a lot of really good musicians in town, a lot of really good music, and the scene is great, but when you think national, they’re one of the bands that could really go.”
For rock drummer Matt Mabe (Stella Rose, Quaker City Night Hawks, Jefferson Colby), one of the most respected musicians in North Texas, the Barbs represent everything he loves about rawk ’n’ rolllll! “They’re a gang of guys who just like to have a good time and totally wreck shit on stage,” he said. “Too many bands do that morose, stare-at-their-shoes, look-at-us-aren’t-we-so-great? kind of thing or that punk-rock fuck-you-and-all-your-friends thing, but the Barbs just wanna make you do your embarrassing white-boy drunk dance moves.”
The Hanna Barbarians, with their sweet but scary-looking dogs Pup-Pup and Chewy, live together in a gorgeous two-story house in Oakhurst, in the Riverside area, outfitted with a microscopic yet serviceable practice shed out back. The band landed the house about a year ago, and the neighbors have been super-cool. So far. The inside is, astoundingly, clean and relatively uncluttered. In the hardwood-floored living room by the pillowy, lived-in couch squats an orange beanbag chair. On the assorted shelves are tons of books, ranging from The Essential Gandhi to Sam Wyly’s 1,000 Dollars & an Idea to Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan; original art hangs on the walls; the scent of a hookah is in the air; and by the flat-screen TV is a record player. On one recent rehearsal evening, a ’70s-era dramatic reading of The Hobbit was cued up.
The guys were in the dining room, seated at a large wooden table for a pre-jam snack: a mess of sushi rolls. The last time the Barbs had played together was a couple of days earlier, at Trees in Dallas, with Spoonfed Tribe, one of the oldest, most respected local bands around. The Hanna Barbarians were the only straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll act of the night. “It was a weird scene,” Parish recalled, “like, hippies and rave kids, girls wearing fairy wings and shit.”
All of the Barbarians are from this side of the universe, except for Evans, who is from Hillsboro and took a path to the Fort that’s too circuitous to detail here. Fleming, Payne, and Zobel founded the Barbarians while studying graphic design at Texas Christian University. Early incarnations included a trombone player, a keyboardist, and a violist (!). Zobel was handling vocal duties though only as an afterthought — the band was focused mainly on instrumental technique. (Zobel has since become a terrific singer. He performs solo every Monday night at The Moon.) The band eventually worked up enough covers and originals to sustain a 45-minute set and in early 2009 took the stage at The Grotto on a fortuitous night –– the opener was an obscure singer-songwriter named Blake Parish.
Payne was duly impressed and invited Parish over to the Barbs’ House of the Rising Son, their name for a TCU-area rental house/rehearsal space.
“I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Parish recalled. “I’d gotten so used to people saying that.”
The next time the Barbs saw Parish was a few days later, hanging out at The Moon. Another invite was extended and this time accepted. The first visit did not involve live music, just conversation about music (under the influence of mucho weed and booze). The second visit turned into a musical throwdown that lasted until 4 a.m., and several subsequent visits were equally long on music and short on sleep (which proved to be somewhat problematic for Fleming and Payne, both finishing up their last semester).
“I was impressed [Parish] could remember all the words,” Payne recalled semi-jokingly. “And sing them.”
The guys slowly constructed a musical foundation based on The Beatles and Led Zeppelin plus choice cuts from the classic rock canon. The Barbs’ next move was entirely logical: Pile into a car and head south 300 miles to SXSW, the weeklong music festival and conference that practically doubles Austin’s population every year. “It was fun,” Payne recalled. “We were getting to know each other.”
For three days, the band busked on street corners. A grand total of $25 was generated –– and promptly spent on pitchers of beer.
The Blake Parish era officially began in early May 2009 at The Aardvark on a bill with three heavy-hitting Fort Worth acts: Automorrow, Get Well, and Jefferson Colby. The Hanna Barbarians were a trombone-sportin’, viola-havin’ eight-piece rock outfit, a club owner’s or booking agent’s nightmare (on paper, at least). Perhaps as expected, the band’s sound had a jazzy aspect. Payne said that keeping track of what everyone was doing onstage –– you starting a solo or ending it? –– was next to impossible.
The Barbs spent the summer gigging steadily, even maintaining regular stints at the normally countrified Cowtown Sports Bar & Grill and the Southside DIY venue The Gallery at Landers Machine Shop. Several Syzygy songs, including “Heatstroke,” “Trudy,” and “You/Devil/Me,” were fine-tuned during this time.
However, the band seemed to be running out of energy, out of ideas. At some point in the winter, bassist Luther quit to pursue other projects. His departure was depressing enough to cause the Barbs to shelve the party juice momentarily to contemplate the onrushing future.
They held a meeting at a TCU-area restaurant. “I said, ‘I heard Evans play,’ Payne remembered. “ ‘He’s pretty good.’ ”
Evans had gotten sucked into the Barbs’ orbit several weeks earlier via mutual friends. The transition to him from Luther, the band members recalled, was relatively seamless. “It wasn’t like a tryout or anything,” Evans said. “We all became good friends, and we all wanted to write new songs. At that point, we were revamping.”
Teaching the material to Evans, Fleming said, gave the existing members the opportunity to “rewrite some songs.”
Time came once again to do what the Barbarians do when a stranger is involved: Stuff him into a vehicle and head to Austin for SXSW.
The Hanna Barbarians played five shows in three days –– and not on street corners, either, but in actual, bona fide clubs with electricity and running water and stuff. “It was awesome,” Payne said.
One possible explanation for the success: The Barbs got to play with some marquee indie-rockers, including Hopewell and Cerebral Ballsy, thanks to Evans’ connections in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Austin.
Another, perhaps more likely explanation: the 40 or so friends from Fort Worth who made the trip. “It’s fun to go anywhere with your little entourage,” Payne said with a smile.
The band returned with a newfound passion for the future. “It was time to transition from a garage band to a legitimate project,” Payne said.
Becoming legit, of course, necessitates loading up a rented party bus with $400 worth of hooch and being driven by some benevolent, sober souls from Austin to Albuquerque (Zobel’s hometown) to Boulder, Colo. Though sleeping with either somebody’s feet or ass in your face wasn’t particularly worth writing home about, the band returned unscathed. “None of us got into any tiffs,” Evans said.
The Hanna Barbarians continued gigging locally and writing, and by the time last fall rolled around, they had moved into their current location in Oakhurst. By the winter, the band was ready to enter the studio.
Syzygy was recorded at Red Star Recording Studios in Arlington and co-produced by the band and Red Star’s Robby Baxter, a native Arlingtonian and ex-New York City resident whose resume includes work with Levon Helm, Moby, and a couple of other big-timers. Baxter got turned onto the Barbs after seeing them play at the Capital Bar in the West 7th Street corridor last September. “Their energy was refreshing for me,” Baxter said. “It didn’t seem contrived. It was very organic, very natural, and that’s the thing I really liked about their band and still do.”
The band, now without either trombone or viola, was eager to get into the studio with Baxter, “a really great guy,” Payne said, “and I think he has my favorite taste in music out of everybody. He really gets the stuff I like. He really understood what we were going for.”
The Barbs had experienced a couple of false starts before ending up at Red Star, laying down tracks at friends’ professional studios but never quite falling in love with the results. But the guys knew that to be taken seriously, they needed to have a quality recording to their name. (Not all of the aborted attempts were scrapped. “There are some rare recordings, and some of them are pretty cool,” Payne said.)
Before the Barbs recorded for posterity, they performed a live run-through of the album’s material “to give [Baxter] a feeling about what we wanted to do,” Evans remembered. A week later, Baxter presented the band with a raw copy.
Evans recalled the band’s reaction: “Oh, man, this is cool.”
Baxter said the finished product would not be as “raw.”
Evans remembered, “We said, ‘No, no, no. Go for that.’ ”
The live run-through was recorded on ProTools, but because the Barbs possess such a ’70s rock feel, the band wanted the warmth of an analog recording. Red Star had the machinery. All that was needed was the tape. The band members pooled their money from various jobs and came up with the $400 required for the stuff. There was some trepidation, some unspoken fear of running out of tape before getting every note right. “But we were at that point when we were on that page, and we were ready to do it,” Evans said. “If there ever was a band that I was in that was ready to record on tape, this is it.”
Syzygy has an immediacy that’s electric — two songs, “Black China” and “Porcelain Rooster,” are basically live tracks, and one song, “Trudy,” was recorded in a single take. (With the exception of one song and some snippets, keyboardist Collin Cashman’s contributions were not used. He and the band parted not long after they made the recording.)
The heart of The Hanna Barbarians’ rich, textured sound is the dual guitar attack of Payne and Zobel, who both summon various genres and eras, somewhere between Black Sabbath-thick sludge and back-porch pickin’-and-a-grinnin’, between Hendrix cranking his wah-wah pedal nearly to death and Jimmy Page blowing sloppily but tastefully through pentatonic blues. Neither Payne nor Zobel has an easily identifiable approach. But they don’t have to. They’re both post-modernists, packing their riffs and leads with often appropriated, occasionally abstracted sonic imagery from the 1970s to the ’90s (while pretty much skipping the ’80s entirely). For parts of Syzygy, Payne achieved his biting, chainsaw tone by playing through a 1950s record player converted into an amp head.
Syzygy could have come out in 2112 or 1977: The album is really outside of modern time. With the exception of the last song, the swirling, hypnotic, 13-minute- long instrumental “Black China,” most of the tracks are three to four minutes long, with melodies that soar and ring aboard locomotive rhythms, reinforced by specific arrangements that lend themselves to live improvisation. Syzygy is an artistic endeavor that didn’t require big stylistic risks, but who cares? Broadcast in every note is an ineffable quality that defines the Barbs: sincerity surging through the vocals, guitars, and rhythms, fueled by self-assurance, manifested by songs that on a superficial level inspire head-banging but in a deeper respect conjure up the most lucid, pleasant acid trip, a lava lamp-lit movie full of peace, love, and understanding.
And custom vans.
And hot chicks in tight bellbottoms.
“The thing I dig about the songs is that they’re not overtly macho,” rock drummer Mabe said. “Girls dig the songs, too, because the Barbs understand the basic idea of a groove in the music, and that’s a thing that a lot of bands somehow seem to not grasp. I think when you’re playing your own original songs and you get the chicks dancing, that says a lot in itself.”
The lyrics always service the song. No one could ever accuse the Barbarians of listening to too much Springsteen or Dylan. Just maybe Marc Bolan or Axl Rose. In “Hair of the Dog,” the singer finds himself recovering from some strange lady’s mystical potion, and “13” rocks heavily around a “sweet thing,” a “wicked little reptile” with “the eye of the hurricane.” “Porcelain Rooster,” an ominous, bloody awesome stomp whose obvious sonic referent is The Doors’ “Five to One,” makes absolutely no sense. The rest of the album includes a paean to a vixen who’s got “snakeskin boots and a bag of cocaine” (“Trudy”), a blithe, swaying campfire singalong (“Midnight”), and, indeed, a couple of political screeds. Lyric-writing duties are shared by the rock-traditionalist Zobel and the socially anguished Parish, who does not froth at the mouth in person. On tape, however …
“All we export are pop-culture tools,” Parish yells/sings on “All We Export,” a slow, loud, molten march in leaden Frankenstein boots through post-apocalyptic Times Square. “Manufactured and packaged and mailed direct to you / The latest ad or the popular fad on MTV News / They wanna sell it / To you.”
But what about the blue jeans that effectively brought down the Berlin Wall? “That’s true, and that was good for then,” Parish said, “but [America is] not contributing anything to the world now except [pop culture]. Back then, we were still contributing other things to the world, cars and planes and technology. … Even worse, at that point, a lot of artists were still saying a lot. … I don’t feel there’s even any of that anymore.”
Parish thinks The Beatles did an excellent job of interleaving throughout their saccharine pop songs kernels of conscious-expanding truths. “The Beatles tricked people with pop — ‘Oh, fuck. Maybe I need to think about my life a little more.’ ”
Not that there’s a lack of politically minded bands on the planet, just that they’re harder to find, he said.
Payne doesn’t wholeheartedly agree. “I think that if you’re going to talk about the pop-pop-poppiest of pop culture, then it’s always going to be very surface level,” that we always are going to have airheaded teenagers whose palates simply aren’t developed enough to appreciate complex, non-genre music.
“I read this quote that said the internet is what you make of it,” he continued. “It’s just a place where doors open. Maybe there aren’t as many active musicians that are thinking on this kind of global-consciousness level as in back in the day, but all that music didn’t go anywhere. All the music that’s being made now is all available.”
As an example, the Barbs once performed and recorded a song at 4 a.m. and made it listenable on Facebook five minutes later.
A viral video will attract investors, Parish believes, and it doesn’t even have to feature large-breasted women. “You can see [softcore] anywhere,” Parish said. “You don’t have to look for that in your art anymore.”
You don’t have to look for political guidance in your art anymore, either, he said. “I don’t think it’s an artist’s responsibility to fix this fucked-up political whatever it is. … One quote that I fucking love: Keith Richards said, ‘Rock ’n’ roll is everything you feel from the neck down.’ Y’know, you can be pissed off, and you can rant about it, but we’re not offering any solutions.”
One recent hot topic of conversation at the Barbs’ palatial abode involved The Sheepdogs, a regular, not-awful, not-great throwback-to-the-hazy-’70s band –– and new Rolling Stone coverboys. The Canadian quartet recently beat out 16 other relatively no-name bands in a popular vote to appear on the cover of the vaunted pop-culture magazine. “We’re in a time, because of media, because of the internet, you can literally come out of obscurity and be on the cover of Rolling Stone,” Parish said, even if someone with a lot of cultural clout like an R.S. editor had picked the final 16. “My point,” Parish continued, “is that anything can happen in this day and age if you’re lucky and you meet the right person. And you sound good enough.”
The Barbs aren’t fishing for a big break, though. They’re building their band –– and their brand –– themselves. The Hanna Barbarians plan to start a promotions company under a different name, offering everything from graphic design to press releases for not only up-and-coming musical artists across the globe but also small businesses.
Spreading the Fort Worth rock gospel is also part of the plan. “The music here is exceptionally good but not quite as available to everybody else [in the world],” Payne said. “We just have to find a way, and if we can really find it and take ourselves there, I think that it’s going to really spread.”
Though The Hanna Barbarians were pretty popular before the release of Syzygy, they really established themselves as a force at their CD release party, at the Near Southside DIY venue The Where House, in April. The guys, now with Luther back, estimate that about 400 people showed up. Two ass-kicking Fort Worth bands, the bluesy Quaker City Night Hawks and the knotty but catchy Skeleton Coast, were also on the bill, along with Denton’s Sundress. Evans said that profits from the $8 cover charge helped the Barbs cover the cost of producing 1,000 copies of Syzygy –– and then some.
The next few gigs further solidified The Hanna Barbarians’ newly minted status as local top dogs. The guys are showmen, completely unafraid to let loose on stage. Or light shit on fire. At the band’s performance at The Grotto for the 2011 Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards Festival in late July, Luther offered up an acoustic guitar to the rock gods “just for kicks,” he said. The crowd dug it, and no one got hurt. The Barbs definitely draw energy from their audiences. The band is super tight, a veritable hydra-headed monster of rock. “We’re all like bristles in the same paintbrush,” Parish said.
A lot of bands try to mask synchronicity, true collective single-mindedness, behind masturbatory instrumental excursions or easily cued time signature changes. The Barbs, however, couldn’t be any more relaxed. And happy. But don’t be fooled: There’s a tremendous amount of sweat equity and skill involved, with the pressure –– and the public’s expectations –– ratcheting up as the band grows more proficient gig by gig and rehearsal by rehearsal.
The Barbs are ready for anything, though. They have a positive outlook toward the current era in the music industry, a point in time that has been likened to the Wild West, with no real authority figures and zillions of nameless, aspiring careerists looking for a slice of that proverbial American pie. “The last point when someone had control over the look and the sound was the early 1990s,” Parish said. “Now it’s just a free-for-all. You can be masters of your own destiny, though.”
For the Barbs, writing the best music possible and selling a zillion records a year are not mutually exclusive. “We want both and a lot of things in between: being happy with our art, being comfortable in your own skin, being able to produce a product that you’re happy with, that no one can say, ‘We don’t want that on the album. You gotta go back in and do it again,’ ” Parish said. “There are a lot of [artists] stuck in that conundrum. Look at Weezer. Rivers Cuomo doesn’t even want to play music anymore.”
An exploratory nature and a refusal to be pigeonholed stylistically inform The Hanna Barbarians’ perspective. “It all goes back to honesty,” Zobel said. “There’s always that thought in the back of your mind that this could blow up, but you kinda have to remember why you’re doing it in the first place, the reason why we want to make music. It’s mostly about love … and I think that’s when honesty comes through and when you’re at your peak.”
Being honest with themselves has allowed the Barbs to take divergent stylistic paths but without ever really straying too far from the starting point: kickass rock ’n’ roll. “I think it’s important not to ignore anything,” Zobel said. “We wanna play a country song? We’ll play a country song. We wanna play a blues song? We’ll play a blues song. And I think that part of that honesty in loving what you’re doing is not ignoring anything because you’re trying to fit into some sort of mold. That’s why I love this band, because we can do whatever the fuck we want.”
The band is frequently compared to The Rolling Stones, a distinction that the Barbs take as a compliment but don’t dwell on. “The Stones did all kinds of shit: blues, country, straight rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry shit,” Parish said. “They did progressive, psychedelic stuff. But at the end of the day, what do they call them? They call them a rock ’n’ roll band.”